Morcheeba make their weird and wonderful music in a studio in Clapham that used to belong to The Orb. To find out more about the band and their gear, Sue Sillitoe ventured south of the river to meet Paul Godfrey and the band's programmer and producer Pete Norris.
I first become conscious of Morcheeba at the end of 1995, when Ken Lower, head of press at China Records, phoned to rave about a new band his label had just signed. According to Ken, Morcheeba (comprising brothers Paul and Ross Godfrey, and vocalist Skye Edwards) were brilliant — really special, and so different that once their first album hit the shops they were going to be mega. Well, of course, that's what press officers are paid to tell journalists and I didn't put too much store by it — at least, not until a few months later, when he sent me a pre‑release copy of their first album, Who Can You Trust? The album made it onto my CD player late one Friday night and within a couple of tracks I was hooked. Ken was right; this was really different, a dreamy combination of weird and wonderful influences, from blues and soul to hip‑hop, techno and seminal '60s film music. Morcheeba were so unusual that they defied classification. I played the CD again and again and kept finding new surprises among these amazingly complex layers of sound. I played it to all my friends, too, and was impressed by the number of people who really loved it — even my mate Vicky, who claims she only likes Abba.
Who Can You Trust? was finally released in the UK in the Spring of 1996, and before long everyone was outdoing themselves trying to come up with new ways in which to label this very individual band. No‑one quite managed it — not even the band, who describe themselves as plain old singer/songwriters and state quite categorically that they are "not trip‑ hop's new saviours and have no desire to be heralded as Portishead's heirs or Tricky's bastard love child".
Although Morcheeba are impossible to pigeonhole, this hasn't stopped them going down a storm with both public and fellow musicians alike. Their debut album has sold more than 150,000 copies worldwide; their singles — 'Trigger Hippie', 'The Music That We Hear' and 'Tape Loop' — have all been hits in the UK; they have undertaken four European tours which successfully sold out 1000‑seater venues, and they wowed US audiences when they supported Live and Fiona Apple. Morcheeba are also courted by the likes of George Michael and David Byrne, who was so impressed that he recorded nine songs with them, six of which made it onto his last album, Feelings. And, to cap what must feel like a charmed couple of years, vocalist Skye recently appeared on the BBC's incredibly stylish 'Perfect Day' promotional video, proving that she is more than able to hold her own amongst seasoned artists like David Bowie, Lou Reed, Elton John and Bono.
Yet despite all this, Morcheeba have remained surprisingly unaffected and are determined not to let the trappings of success get in the way of their music. In fact, so keen are they to retain creative control that the first thing they did on signing to China was to buy their own studio. It made commercial sense as well as creative sense, so what could be better?
"We found this studio in Loot," says Paul Godfrey. "In fact we saw it twice, but the first time we didn't pursue it because we thought it would be too expensive. Eventually we decided to come and have a look, and as soon as we walked in we knew it was right. It used to be a commercial studio called Joe's Garage, then it belonged to The Orb. Now it's ours and we really like it."
The clincher in terms of getting the studio was the deal Morcheeba signed with China Records, which literally gave them enough money to move out of the bedroom. "We had a little studio in my brother's flat in Finchley," Godfrey says. "It wasn't anything grand — just a small mixing desk, an Akai S950, an ADAT, Atari and Cubase. The first album was recorded and mixed there — I had to light my rollies on beat so that you couldn't hear my lighter, because we did all the vocals in the same room. On the track 'Small Town' you can even hear the fan heater, although you might have a bit of a job spotting it among the rest of the atmospheric noises."
In these basic surroundings it's amazing that Skye Edwards coped at all, especially as she had only recently met Ross and Paul and had no real experience as a singer. "Ross met her at a party in Greenwich," says Pete Norris. "He was very direct and said 'you're going to be our singer'. She said 'OK'. Little did she know!" "Yes, it's true," Godfrey elaborates. "Ross is an astonishing musician, and as my background is engineering (Paul used to work at Astra Studios in Kent) we were always putting together ideas. It was a combination of blues and hip‑hop — kind of X Records stuff — but with no real focus because we had no vocals. What we needed was a singer."
When Ross, a former BRITS school student, met Skye she was a fashion student working part‑time in The Body Shop and had no real ambition to be a vocalist. "She got completely misled by us," laughs Paul. "That's why the album sounds like it does, because she's in shock and doesn't really want to be there. Four days before we signed with China she told us she was having a baby. It was like a runaway train — everything happened so fast it was difficult to keep up with it." With due reference to Skye's baptism by fire, the band have added a decent live room and isolation booth to their new studio, which is where part of the first album was recorded. At least now the poor girl has room to breathe! "We've actually done quite a lot of work," says Pete Norris. "The place was empty when we moved in, just a shell. None of The Orb's gear was here, except their multicore, which we bought for £500. I'm still using it now, even though the buggers had pulled it all out of the floor. I mean what can you do with old cable? Not a lot, really. But it was pulled up because they were moving and it was sitting in a pile in the corner with a few bits of other junk.
"We put in an offer and Paul and I spent an entire Sunday working out which of the rat runs each length went in. Obviously the connectors on either end were completely useless because we had a different wiring plan. But to have appropriate lengths of 24‑pair multicore was great so we just put it back into the floor." Norris adds that it was like sorting out a plate of spaghetti. "We kept saying 'shit, this bit's not long enough — let's try this bit. Great, put that bit there and try that bit over here'. Eventually it worked out so well that we now have a much better studio design than we would have achieved starting from scratch. The studio has racks for outboard gear and a separate area for computer workstations, whereas my design would have been more centred around the desk to keep cabling costs down. I prefer this layout because it gives me room to move." He adds that when he used to work at Rondor Music's studios in Parsons Green — which is where the band did their demo for 'Trigger Hippie' and where they met Norris — he could barely stand up because the ceiling was so low. "At least I don't have that problem here."
Having acquired the studio, Morcheeba and Pete Norris set about equipping it. "Most of what's here is what we put on our original shopping list," says Paul Godfrey. "The Otari MTR90 24‑track is a later addition, but the rest was bought when we moved in." Godfrey based the studio on the Beastie Boys' Check Your Head album cover. "I wanted my studio to be like their studio and we've pretty much achieved it. I'm a huge Beastie Boys fan and I really love the way they create sounds by mixing old and new technology. It's unique. I've always said we may sound like bollocks but at least we've got a studio like the Beastie Boys."
"Yeah, well, next time we do a studio, I'm having soldering sherpas to do all the wiring," laughs Norris, who did everything himself when they first moved in because he was in the worst possible position — that of knowing how to do it but not knowing anyone else who could. "By the time we bought the Otari I'd learned how to delegate. I got Kelsey to send over everything I needed and all I had to do was solder on 48 cannons."
Godfrey and Norris' choice of console was a 32:8:2 Mackie with a 24:8 expander. "We got the Mackie because it's cheap and wonderful," Norris says. "Design money has been spent in the right areas, so although it doesn't have masses of flash features, it sounds great, because virtually every connector is balanced. That makes an enormous difference. People often wonder why their home studios are not quiet, and what it comes down to is bad wiring and small mixers with no balanced connections. If the whole thing is unbalanced it's almost impossible to get the studio silent." Having no automation might bother some people, especially for mixing, but Godfrey prefers it. "It makes you more brutal in the arrangement. We turn everything up and if it doesn't sound good we wipe over it. If that leaves a hole, then we find something better to fill it with. If you have too much automation you end up sounding like some band from the 1980s where there's too much of everything, and it all just gets louder and louder." Morcheeba make creative decisions throughout the recording process, so that by the time they mix they have a pretty clear idea of what they want on their master. Godfrey: "It's much more interesting to make decisions you intend to keep and then work around them."
As Morcheeba's studio is private, they have no clients to impress and therefore their equipment choice is very personal. Apart from the Mackie and Otari MTR90, they have two Alesis ADATs with remote control, two Akai S950 samplers and one S3000, an Atari running Cubase v2 and various compressors, gates and EQs, including a TLA valve compressor, a Drawmer DS201 gate and an Amek 9098 EQ. They use a wide range of delay and reverb units — check out the equipment list — and have Alesis monitoring, with the ubiquitous Yamaha NS10s for nearfield use.
Keyboards and synthesizers feature in Morcheeba's studio, and the collection includes a Roland Super Jupiter MKS80, a Novation BassStation, a Hammond organ and a Wurlitzer electric piano. But first prize for pure weirdness goes to the EMS Synthi A — a 1970s beast in a box that was originally designed as a teaching tool and a portable version of the desktop VCS3 which features so heavily on Dark Side Of The Moon. Godfrey and Norris really like the Synthi, but they have little time for modern sound modules that they describe as poor photocopies of the real thing. "Stepping through patches in the vain hope of finding something to make your track for you is pointless," Norris says. "People should use original instruments." "Don't tell them that," quips Godfrey. "That's our secret."
Joking aside, Morcheeba believe making music is about being creative and unique and that you can't achieve anything if you buy your sounds off the shelf. Norris adds: "It's not impossible to edit these sounds, but it's difficult and about as much fun as trying to paint your hall through your letterbox. If your music is hands‑on — or at least foot on a guitar pedal — you're involved and part of the creative process, so there's a much better chance of the track working out. In my view, a patch that is nearly right is just not good enough."
Morcheeba run Cubase v2 on an Atari computer and use it primarily for drums — no music, only loops, kicks and snares. Godfrey admits that his first copy of the software came via nefarious means, but then he was a poor struggling artist at the time and it was a long time ago — honest! "I wanted Notator but couldn't afford it, so I got Cubase and learned how to use that instead," he says. "We don't use it for keyboard parts but it's useful for drums — and even now we can afford a proper sequencing program we don't want to change it." As it happens, they've had version sitting in a box for some time, but they checked it out and rejected it because their Atari wasn't able to keep up. Norris: "They doubled the recording resolution and started to leave the hardware behind. If Atari had brought out a bigger machine everything would have been equal. But functions like screen redraws were so slow that Paul wasn't having any of it!"
"You don't need that level of sophistication. That's the problem affecting software generally — manufacturers make it bigger and bigger, and generally it's not what artists and producers want or need."
So in what way do Godfrey and Norris feel technology contributes to Morcheeba's music? They both laugh at that question. "It enables us to commit music to tape. It would be hard to record without a tape recorder, although Morcheeba would still be a great band with bongos and acoustic guitars," says Norris. "Technology — especially Cubase — helps with the arrangement, but it doesn't enable you to do anything you can't do manually if you sit down with a manuscript and score it," Godfrey adds.
"Hard disk sounds shit," says Godfrey unequivocally. "I'd only want it if we were going to get anal about editing things afterwards." This is unlikely, as Morcheeba say they don't like to paint themselves into tight corners — certainly not to the point where anal editing might be required. "I find it hard to believe that people have software for re‑pitching and re‑tuning backing vocals. Why the hell didn't they just kick arse when they were recording the backing vocals? Why not make the singers perform it better and get that right version on tape?" says Norris. Put like that, it's hard to disagree. Eventually Godfrey concedes that hard disk is useful sometimes, but in his opinion you can't beat 2‑inch tape. "I'm no great fan of ADATs, even though we run them. I've never liked putting my precious music on VHS video tape, and I feel the same way about hard disk. It's just not tangible and substantial."
"For some people hard disk makes perfect sense" adds Norris. "I can't imagine broadcasters going back to quarter‑inch tape and making their edits with a razor blade. But music recording is a linear process. Songs start at the beginning and finish at the end. You don't need random access. I can wait for the tape to rewind on a four‑minute song. I'm not going to get old that fast. Anyway, it's all marketing. People should work out what they need to execute their sound and stick to that."
Godfrey and Norris are so laid back about Morcheeba's recording sessions with ex‑Talking Heads frontman David Byrne that you almost think they're putting it on. Then you notice that Godfrey is trying hard not to look too pleased with himself and Norris is sort of smiling to himself, and you realise they're actually chuffed as hell. Byrne got in touch after hearing their first album. "He said it was dark, dreamy and deep — displaying a sense of humour," laughs Godfrey. "He phoned while we were on tour and said we could either go to New York or he would come to Clapham — sort of 'my place or yours'.
"We were comfortable here, so we said come over. It was funny because we could have gone anywhere in the world, but we wanted to be comfortable. We work at a very basic, telepathic level and it's all based on feeling. We hardly talk at all — just nod at each other. David fitted in really well and just grooved with it.
"Once Ross was asleep on the sofa as usual — he's like that in the studio, either dead to the world or wide awake playing a blinding guitar solo — while David was setting up his guitar pedals for him. He finished it, then said 'all he has to do now is sit down and play. Is there anything else I can do?'. "We said yes — wake Ross up if you like. Poor old Ross. There he is with one of his heroes setting up his guitar pedals and he sleeps right through it!"
Do Morcheeba plan to work as producers on any other hip and trendy albums? According to Godfrey, that's unlikely, firstly because the band have enough on their plate finishing their next album, and secondly because they are reluctant to let other artists buy into the Morcheeba sound. "At the moment people are trying to buy into our sound wholesale, saying 'let's get Morcheeba to do our next record' and offering us lots of money," he explains. "With David Byrne it was different — we wanted to work with him because he was an artist we had a great deal of respect for and it was fun. But in general we are turning down production deals we are offered because we don't want to sell ourselves and exchange our credibility for cash. After all, what's the point of selling Morcheeba to someone else?"
Remixing is about the marketing tail wagging the dog. We don't get involved in that because it's horrible and formulated, and for people who have no self‑belief
Godfrey is equally dismissive about remixing, and feels record companies should stop wasting artists' money by insisting on so many different versions of the same track just to fill up a CD single. "Many records have the same sound because record companies are using the same remixers and it's all becoming staid and boring. I think some people are beginning to see through the remix nonsense. Certainly a lot of producers don't like having their productions interfered with, and who can blame them? Remixing is about the marketing tail wagging the dog. We don't get involved in that because it's horrible and formulated, and for people who have no self‑belief."
And where did the name Morcheeba come from?
"It's tongue in cheek — MOR as in middle of the road, and 'cheeba', which is slang for grass," says Paul Godfrey. "I invented the name while I was on holiday in France as a sort of piss‑take of hip-hop and guns and all that stuff. Our lyrics are sometimes described as menacing but I don't think our music is — not with Skye's really sweet voice on top. That's the trouble with this business — other people have a tendency to take you too seriously!"
Morcheeba are now well into their second album, which should be ready for release next spring. "I like working under pressure, but I like it to be pressure I impose on myself," says Godfrey. "I don't like being told what to do by anyone, even if they have lent us £50,000 to build a studio." He adds that the new album is not as 'down' as the first album. "I never went out, never spoke to anyone — it was a very isolating experience. Prior to that, I'd had a pretty awful time in my personal life and it inspired the pain for that record. It was therapeutic.
"Then we had to go on the road, which just blew our minds. We were taken out of our environment, spread thinly across the rest of the world, and were absolutely worn out when we got back. The last thing we wanted to do was go into a small studio and start recording, so we decided to party like mad for four months until we realised we did eventually have to make another record."
As it happens, most of the songs for the second album were written before the first album was released, so there was scope for the band to party without completely losing the plot. "Mind you, we've lost it now," Godfrey laughs. "We are having a lot of fun and we wouldn't change it for the world." "Two or three million quid, maybe," adds Norris, "but not the world."
- Apple Macintosh Powerbook 190CS
- Atari 1040STFM, 2.5Mb, with Steinberg Cubase v2
- Alesis 3630 compressor (x2)
- Alesis ADAT (x2) with BRC remote control
- Alesis Midiverb multi‑effects
- Alesis Matica 900 amplifiers (x2)
- Alesis Monitor Two monitors
- Alesis Quadraverb multi‑effects
- Alesis Quadraverb 2 multi‑effects
- Amek 9098 EQ
- Casio portable DAT machine
- Denon cassette deck
- Drawmer DS201 gate
- Lexicon PCM80 effects
- Mackie 32:8:2 mixing console with Mackie 24:8 expander
- Otari MTR90 MkII 24‑track tape machine
- Panasonic SV3700 DAT machine
- Roland RE201 Space Echo
- Sony D7 multi‑effects
- TEAC CD player
- Technics SU8077K amplifier
- TL Audio C1 valve compressor
- Yamaha 1010 analogue delay
- Yamaha NS10 monitors
- AKG C3000 (x2)
- Shure SM57 (x2)
- Shure SM58
- Shure Beta 52 (x2)
- Shure Beta 56 (x4)
- Shure Beta 57
- Shure Beta 58
- Shure Beta 87
- EMS Synthi A
- Hammond organ
- Hohner Clavinet
- Marlin Synthesizer
- Novation BassStation
- Rhodes electric piano
- Roland MKS80 Super Jupiter
- Roland GR300 guitar synth
- Wurlitzer electric piano
- Akai S950 sampler, 1Mb (x2).
- Akai S3000 sampler, 8Mb, with Iomega Zip drive